Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

Non-binary reality

One of the reasons I ended up on the druid path and not exploring witchcraft, was the issue of polarity. I read about the power of polarity, of opposites, and I knew I’d never be able to make that work. With hindsight (and more reading) I think this may be more of a wiccan issue, but I don’t regret the choice. The opposition of male and female makes no direct sense to me.

I don’t tend to view the world in binary terms. Either/or doesn’t work for me. I see spectrums. I see multiple options. Give me two things that are supposed to be binary opposites, and I can do both, or neither, or something in between. That’s part of why I have a thinking about feeling column here. I’ve always found it weird that logic and emotion are so often set up as opposites. Then logic is understood as a male characteristic and female people get given emotion, and never the two shall meet. In practice, this cuts people off from half of themselves, and it works well for no one.

I’ve always found the introvert/extrovert notion confusing, too. For me, this is also a spectrum, and one I may turn up on at any point. I can be both extremely introverted, and distinctly extroverted, depending on energy levels and context. Ask me to sing, if you want me to go into a more extroverted mode.

When we label people, we tend to assume they are one thing or another. A person who is identified as kind can get a great deal of unpleasant feedback if they say no to someone else’s professed needs, or get cross about something. In practice, a person can be both fragile and tough, educated and foolish, confident and easily shaken – humans are full of contradictions at the best of times, and we are more complex than we seem to notice.

One of the memes I see going round regularly on twitter is that Persephone is both spring flower maiden and goddess of the underworld. Both. It’s a good thing to remember if you aren’t tidily one thing or another.

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Overcoming our own thoughts

I’ve done CBT work – I was given a booklet by my doctor some years ago. It gave me a few fire-fighting techniques, but I found it of limited use. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy assumes that the problem is you, and if you change your thinking you won’t feel as depressed or anxious. When the problems originate outside of you, changing your thinking can be like stepping into a gaslighting program where you start having to persuade yourself things are ok when they aren’t. This does not improve anyone’s mental health.

So, when your thoughts spiral out of control into anxiety and depression, and learning not to think those things isn’t the answer, what can you do? This is what I’ve come up with…

1) Define the problem. Pin down exactly what is making you feel anxious or depressed. If that’s triggering you into other problematic things, acknowledge it, but don’t dwell on the triggering any more than you can help. Take yourself seriously.

2) If you can get away from the trigger at all, do so, and then get whatever respite you can and your mind will eventually calm down.

3) Risk asses what’s going on. If the source of your distress is primarily functioning as a trigger and isn’t a threat in its own right, then go for self care, and maybe if you feel brave, look at the mechanics and see if you can change anything. Affirming that the threat is in the past and not with you now can help. Talk to someone about it, try and build a new perspective. If it’s an out of date coping mechanism, you can unpick it on those terms.

4) If you do your risk assessment and feel that the problem is happening right now, how you progress will depend a lot on the nature of the problem. Dealing with the threat or removing yourself from it are your best bets. If you feel the threat is small, then talking through how it makes you feel, or getting some help to tackle it may suffice. A scary bit of paperwork can be dealt with, you can recover and move on, for example. If you have a history with something it is perfectly reasonable to find it difficult. You can get on top of this, and you can feel better about things.

5) If something panics you so that you can’t think clearly about it, try and find someone who can work it through with you.

6) If the threat is real and larger, see what help you can get, be that the police, medical assistance, etc. There may be support groups out there, or advice to be had. If you are dealing with a significant threat, it is not irrational to feel anxious or depressed. Be clear with yourself that your feelings are totally appropriate, and vent them where you can to try and avoid being paralyzed by them. Work to remove the threat or to escape from it – you won’t be able to recover until the problem is dealt with.

7) If the threat is ongoing, it is going to take a toll. This includes situations like domestic abuse, workplace bullying, dealing with institutionalised racism, or any other misery created by the wider society and political structure you’re stuck in. Sometimes there is no ‘away’ to escape to and as the person suffering it really shouldn’t be your responsibility to fix what’s broken. If you take damage dealing with something like this it is not a sign of weakness or illness. It is a natural, human response to something inhuman. I wish I had more to offer you than this.


Depression and the loss of meaning

One of the things I find hardest about depression is the way it strips the meaning out of everything. All efforts and hopes seem futile. It’s not something I can write about when I’m in there because the feeling of pointlessness is silencing.

Loss of meaning brings a loss of direction. It takes all the energy out of anything you might have been doing. It makes it impossible to see what any action might achieve or how it could be useful. On bad days, this can mean even basic self care. Why get dressed? Why eat? Why bother? What’s the point, even?

When nothing I do seems meaningful or relevant, the world around me seems different to me, too. It’s just a cold, mechanical universe in which my actions have no consequences. All the love and light and colour are stripped out. I am at my least able to do Druidry when this happens. I cannot do relationship, or wonder, or magic, or possibility. I feel very alone, and it does not seem that there is any way out of it.

I don’t have firm beliefs about the meaning of life. I don’t have rules to go back to so that I can get through the bad days. My uncertainty is really important to me because it keeps me non-dogmatic, open minded and able to change. Uncertainty offers few comforts in times of mental anguish. When I’m at my most certain, I think that meaning is a human thing and that we make it, or don’t. On good days I find meaning simply in experiencing life, interacting, creating, doing stuff. On my good days I need very little meaning at all to keep going.

I don’t experience meaning, or the loss of it, as a solitary issue. When I have no sense of point or purpose, I depend on other people. I might not feel like doing anything for me, but I’ll get up and go through the motions for the sake of the people around me. Sometimes, not making things worse for those closest to me is all I’ve got. I keep this blog going because if there’s any chance I can say something useful, there is a point to trying. I couldn’t create that on my own. That sense of worth and possibility is held for me by everyone who leaves comments here.

When depression destroys my sense of worth, it is other people who keep me going. It is through the words and actions of others that I find reasons to try. Sometimes all it takes is not giving up, to eventually pull through to a better state of mind.

We never know really what someone else is experiencing. I do know however, that the gestures we make to each other in small, everyday ways are incredibly powerful. I don’t think personal affirmations will save anyone from mental health struggles, but other people’s affirmations can really help. You are loved. You are wanted. Your work makes a difference. Your presence is valued. We find you useful. You brighten my day. I am glad you are my friend. You’ve made a real difference to me. And so on. These are words of power and magic, that can save someone and ease their suffering.


Performative female

I’ve spent the last week or so pondering the idea that gender is largely performative and thinking about my own uneasy relationship with gender. I’ve got a body. I have never known how to get that body to perform as feminine. I’ve been shamed for not being able to do this well enough – for not moving, dressing or wearing makeup like a ‘proper’ woman. I’ve seen the performance treated as more important than the biology. More important than my self esteem and sense of self.

In my teens I tried hard to perform as female. But I can’t walk well in heels – my ankles are problematic. I’m innately scruffy, I don’t do elegant or glamorous well. I don’t mostly feel sexy, or cute, or pretty or any of the things that might go with presenting a conventionally female identity. I can do goth or steampunk or Pagan hippy, because these are performances that allow me to be silly, colourful, grotesque or ridiculous, and I am more those things.

One of the things that has come up for me as I’ve explored this recently, is that I’m carrying a lot of resentment. I often resent women who can perform as women more effectively than me, and who are rewarded for that. I can’t compete with women who can do sexy and glamorous and who are willing to use that to get stuff done. I like to think that if I had options on this score, I wouldn’t use that to get stuff done. But, the reality is that I live in a culture that prefers certain kinds of appearances, and I don’t tick the boxes. I want to be judged based on my knowledge, skill and usefulness, not my face or the shape of my body. I do not get to pick the terms on which I am judged.

Looking back over my life so far I see that attempts at performing gender have made me miserable. Spaces where I’ve not felt any pressure to be more conventionally feminine are always better spaces for me. Situations where I’m valued based on what I can do, not how I look, are always happier and more rewarding spaces. I’ve always felt the performative stuff as performative, it’s why the term has been so resonant for me. It can only be an act for me, a pretence. Trying leaves me feeling fake and uncomfortable with myself. I get a keen feeling of trying to be something I am not, and of taking on something I have no right to.

I sometimes respond to this by resenting the women who can perform female. Resenting the women who can do a better job of looking and acting the part. I’ve tried to trivialise and diminish what for some women is no doubt an important part of self. Part of this is because I am jealous of women who are better looking than me – of whom there are a great many. Jealousy is not an emotion I like, but I can’t do envy here because there is no way I can move towards any of this and not feel totally fake.

My plan in the short term is to watch out for situations where I feel under pressure to perform as female, and see what I can do to change my relationships with those spaces. Alongside this I’m watching out for the idea that being non-binary means being more overtly male, because that doesn’t work for me either. I can’t perform male. I need to build a sense of self that is not about my failure to perform gender, and that allows me a bit more room.


Acting on emotions

Few things wind me up more than people who do something crap, and when called on it, say it was just an unconsidered, off the cuff, spur of the moment thing. As though that somehow excuses it. It can be useful to know there was no conscious malice, but for me, lack of care and attention is also an issue.

We have experiences. We have emotional responses to those experiences. We get a choice, usually, about how we express those emotional responses. People who are triggered into panic attacks and PTSD flashbacks don’t get a choice about how that manifests, and need as much slack cutting as possible. People whose trauma makes them respond in ways that make no sense to onlookers need kindness and patience. There’s a great deal of difference between that kind of response though, and one that comes from carelessness.

Something happens, and you have feelings. Do you give yourself permission to act on those feelings? This, for me, is one of the big problems with too much living in the moment – that it discourages people from contextualising their behaviour or taking proper responsibility for it.

Small children react based on what they feel. They do so with no perspective – they have none after all. They do so with no consideration for how their screaming, violence, destruction or tears may impact on anyone else. We teach small children perspective, and they learn it from experience. If you are a decent carer, you teach children about how their behaviour impacts on others, about what’s fair and reasonable, and what isn’t.

And yet, so many adults still do the equivalent of throwing all of the toys out of the pram when they don’t get their own way. I assume that in part this comes from a sense of entitlement and a belief that their feels must be the most important thing. I wonder also if it is to do with attention.

For small children, attention from adults functions as a reward. If the adult attention comes from acting out, you keep doing it. Attention for tantrums, and screaming fits and making yourself vomit can be a real incentive to keep going with that. In school, the worst behaved children can be motivated by a desire for attention from classmates and teachers, and may not believe they can get that attention any other way.

An adult who gets their own way for having a tantrum is an adult with every incentive to keep having tantrums. We learn to do more of what works. If we’re rewarded for crying, we’ll cry. If we’re rewarded for stoicism, we won’t let anyone see those tears. If making drama puts us centre stage, we’ll make drama. None of us exists in a vacuum, and who we are can so easily be shaped by how other people respond to us. Still, anyone can choose at any time. We do not have to live out the unconscious consequences of how we’ve been taught to behave.

We do not have to do anything. We do not have to respond to feeling angry by shouting, hitting or breaking things. We do not have to scream and shout when things don’t go our way. Equally, we do not have to hide our grief or always act like everything is fine no matter what. We can choose. In those seconds when an emotion happens to us, we can make conscious choices about how best to express it. We can take a breath and imagine the consequences. We might go so far as to imagine how our reactions may in turn cause reactions in others. We can choose to act in ways that will not lead us into spirals of aggression. If you think someone else’s behaviour is making you act in a certain way, you need to take back control.

We can feel all of our emotions wholeheartedly without ever giving them control of our personal steering wheels.


Emotional Energy

For people who feel keenly (is that all of us, or only some of us, I’m never sure!) emotions take a lot of energy. I assume this works as a spectrum and that the more intensely you feel things, the more those emotions take up energy. I also find that the more powerful the emotion, the more time I need to digest it, process it, and accommodate it. This is also true for me in dealing with potent positive experiences.

The incredible high of something going amazingly well and being rich with excellent feedback, brilliant outcomes and wholehearted emotional engagement from other people can, if I’m not careful, lead to desperate plummets. Coming down off a high like that can be nothing short of a crash. However, I’ve found in recent years that if I give myself processing time in the aftermath, I cope a lot better. Walking home talking over whatever happened, writing about it, eating toast, drinking tea, bringing my body down gently.

I find anger takes a terrible toll on me. It’s not an emotion I’m prone to and I can only sustain it in very short bursts, and it leaves me wiped out. The aftermath of anger tends to bring massive anxiety and no confidence. I second guess myself, mistrust my first impulse, and can easily fall into depression. Historically, anger has not been a safe emotion for me to express in any way and I’m still learning how to make room for it without harming myself. No doubt this is part of why it leaves me exhausted. For other people, anger can be a source of energy and fuels feelings if self righteousness and power. We’re all different.

Squashing down sad feelings can seem like a way of avoiding negativity and staving off depression. My experience is that in the longer term, it has the exact opposite impact. Pains and griefs that are dealt with at the time can be let go of. Anything we repress or deny festers inside us, often to return with greater force at a later date. Unprocessed grief can become a very heavy thing to carry, and it can crush you.

It takes a surprising amount of energy to not deal with powerful feelings. Pretending that everything is fine is one of the most expensive emotional activities that I’ve ever encountered. Over time, it is exhausting, leaving me not only feeling threadbare and depressed, but also inauthentic and hollow. Having space for your own feelings is a key part of getting to feel like a real person, not some kind of robot. Feeling obliged to hide how you feel to appease others eats away at self esteem, identity and confidence. People who do not have room for your real responses are not good people to spend time with. If you can’t get out of that situation, making private, personal space for how you really feel is essential. A few minutes locked in a bathroom can be a sanity saver.

We associate being cool and in control with being mature and responsible. Our culture is suspicious of emotional outbursts and quick to label them as childish, irresponsible, or manipulative. You don’t get to be the kind of person who is always calmly in control by not feeling things. Not least because if you don’t let yourself feel, you never find out what you feel, and thus never really know who you are, and this is the egg from which future breakdowns in mental health will hatch.


Learning to be selfish

Nearly 18 months ago it became apparent that if my mental and physical health didn’t make it to the priority list, I was, sooner or later, going to break irretrievably. About a year ago, I started looking at what was going on with my creative work and identified a similar problem – if I was going to not give up, my work was going to have to be on the list of things that mattered.

It is in part about asking other people to give me time, space and other resources. It is about asking other people to take my needs seriously. But, I won’t do that if I’m not taking my needs seriously. I’ve spent a lot of my adult life feeling like stuff for me was never the most important thing. It so easily becomes a self-fulfilling thing as well. I don’t make much money from my creativity, so in terms of looking after my household, my creativity cannot be a priority and so I don’t invest in it and it doesn’t bring much in and round we go again.

In the last year or so, I’ve started asking what’s in it for me? I’ve stopped making what other people want the most important consideration. I’ve not really had a lot of choice – for the last five months or so, I’ve moved from one disease to another. Time, energy and personal resources are at a serious low. I cannot run round after many people. I truly don’t have much I can afford to give. Prioritising has become a matter of survival. It’s led me to saying no to people, to not showing up, not offering, not responding to stuff on social media. I allow myself to scroll on past if I don’t feel like I have the resources to spare to help.

Sometimes, that makes me feel like a cold and heartless sort of person.

However, I’ve managed to keep working all the time I’ve been ill. I’ve managed to honour my most important commitments. I’ve managed to be helpful sometimes, because I’ve focused on what I can most effectively do. I’ve mostly hung on, just on the right side of things. Bouts of crumbling into despair, into weeping that I cannot keep going, cannot do the things, have been few in what has been a very tough five months. Probably better to say no early on rather than try and fail and take things down with me, I feel.

I’ve decided I can choose who and what I am going to responsible for, rather than having it chosen for me. I’ve not put much energy into explain things to people where I’ve had to pull back – they don’t have to keep holding any space for me, they can write me off as a bad loss, that’s fine. But, I’m not doing drama, and I’m not investing energy in justifying myself and that has really helped. I keep reminding myself that I am not obliged to meet other people’s needs for my time, attention and energy – no matter how entitled they think they are, I am not obligated. To be honest, this still feels really weird, but I can see it working, and life has been easier as a consequence.

One of the curious lessons in all of this, is that it was never the people most in need who were sapping me the most. People with small problems and a big sense of entitlement are a lot more exhausting to deal with. People who wanted results from me but also wanted to control how I was going to deliver that have, with hindsight, been a massive problem. I’ve put a hand up for some larger projects recently and noticed how much easier it is when people just let me do what I do. When I’m trusted to know what I’m doing. When the people who want my help don’t then require me to fight them so that I can help in a way that actually works.

If I can work on my own terms, then I can work happily, and when it comes to ‘what’s in it for me?’ that’s a really important factor.


Delicious envy

Jealousy is a terrible emotion, filling you with bitter, resentful thoughts. Jealousy can make you detest the people who do the most good, or create the most beauty. Jealousy demands that we be centre stage, the best, the most important and cannot tolerate anyone who surpasses us. It sucks the joy out of all encounters with anything better than we could do ourselves. From what I’ve seen of other people going this way, it is a terrible approach to life and the person it reliably hurts the most is the person experiencing the jealousy.

We do get some say over our emotions. Not the most raw and immediate feelings, but how we process and develop them. Those choices, over time, shape us.

So, you see something that is better than anything you have ever done. It might be better than anything you could ever do. It is possible to simply enjoy it on its own terms and not feel diminished by it. Equally, you can look at whatever surpasses you, and see clearly your falling short, and celebrate it. Not being able to do something means there is more to learn and explore, more to do and enjoy. The feelings of difference between what you can do and what you can see do not have to lead to jealousy. They can become envy, and with practice, envy is an experience a person can enjoy.

Envy is jealousy minus the entitlement. If you don’t imagine that these things should have been yours instead, then you are not diminished by the achievements of others. What they do can instead raise you up by enabling you to see greater possibility than before. You can chaff against someone outclassing you without having to resent them for it, or think ill of them.

Competitive culture encourages jealousy. When we think in terms of winners and losers. When we think attention and rewards are limited, scarce even, and that what goes to one means less for yourself. Then we may feel other people’s success as threatening to us. When we think collaboratively, we can see other people’s success as part of our good. We pass each other building blocks to enable more good stuff to happen.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with looking at what anyone else has or does and feeling the distance between you and them. Feeling the distance is a natural emotional response. It’s what we then choose to do as we recognise the pang that matters. Do we dwell darkly on it and plot revenge? Or do we cheer with delight for the person who has just outclassed us while trying to figure out if we can catch up at all? When you respond with envy, not jealousy, it can be a delightful experience.


Sharing a sacred space

We’re in school holidays at the moment, and so I have had the luxury of not having to set the alarm clock. Usually I’m up and working, and parenting before seven. On the plus side it gives me a solid working morning and I tend to get a fair bit done. However, I’d much rather wake naturally. I tend to wake with the sun, so at this point in the year I’m surfacing before the alarm would have gone off, and then I’m just lying there for a while.

Back when I was working on Pagan Dreaming, I thought a lot about the possibilities of bed as sacred space. For this to be so, your bed must be a place of comfort, safety and joy. Of course for many people who experience abuse inside their own homes – adults and children alike – the bed can become a focus of misery, not a place of safety. When you’re living with abuse, if can be very hard to see what’s going on. Abusers use shame, blame, mind games, criticism and lies to confuse their victims. So let me mention that if your bed is not a safe place, there are some very serious things wrong in your life.

There is profound luxury for me in these current, small lie ins. An extra hour here and there, warm, relaxed and relishing the company of the man who shares the bed with me. It is a gentle intimacy, rich with affection and good for the soul. But, there have also been times in my past when I’ve woken in beds other than this one, tense with anxiety and hurting with my whole being.

Care and respect are the basis of any healthy relationship. If we are kind to each other, if we take into account each other’s needs and feelings and check in with each other about that regularly, it is not difficult to have a good relationship. And yet, so many relationships are blighted by one person’s need to have control of the other person. It is usually men controlling women, and it is a state of affairs backed up by centuries of cultural norms and ideas about marriage as ownership. Fear of what the other person might do if we don’t control them can turn us into monsters. You can’t have a good relationship with someone who is afraid of you.

Lying next to someone when there’s nothing to prove. When there are no points to score, and there’s no fear of being judged, or blamed. Lying next to each other because it’s inherently lovely to do that, sharing space and skin and togetherness. What shocks me about this, sometimes, is how blessedly easy and uncomplicated it is. How little effort it takes to have this beautiful time. And in turn, how deeply unnatural it is to de-sanctify this sacred space with power games, bullying, and physical cruelty.


Night Waking

It may well be that babies start out entirely natural in their waking patterns, and learn to sleep through the night. It might well be that once upon a time we’d all have been waking up in the night. The night prayers of monasteries are one piece of evidence for this, and there’s some interesting stuff in Don Quixote about how many sleeps a person needs. Pre-industrialisation, we probably slept like babies.

I’ve experienced night waking over the last few years. Sometimes it happens when I’ve consistently slept well for some time and can afford to be awake. Sometimes it feels more like insomnia. In recent weeks, I’ve found that Tom often surfaces when I do, and that makes for a very different experience.

When writing about this sort of stuff for Pagan Dreaming, I observed that, waking in the night I could think things that weren’t available to me at other times. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore – I think that’s simply because my mental health has improved and I can think whatever I need to think whenever I need to think it. Lying awake in the darkness can be strange and lonely, but lying awake companionably is a whole other thing. There may be few words and little activity, but there’s scope for a deep sense of communion here. I wonder how the monks felt with their night time prayers, with little light to guide them. Did that feel like isolation, or intimacy? The same experience can be a chore for some, and touched with numinousness for others.

I’m very conscious that my sleeping time is dictated by the needs of the day. I seldom have the luxury of being able to stay up late, or be awake in the night, and then able to offset it by sleeping in. I can’t be led by my sleeping impulses. I have to respond to the alarm clock. Adventures in night consciousness are always accompanied by an awareness of having to really pay for it later.

We’ve become so involved with clock time, work time, school time. To be a modern human is to have a schedule, and dire consequences if you don’t stick to it. Our whole culture depends on this, and we arrange our lives in confidence around the expectation that everyone else will be in the right place at the right time, like a well oiled machine. Excerpt we aren’t well oiled machines, and I wish we had more space to let mystery come to us in the darkness.